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Yang Andrew | Fellow Visitor
2019-10-14 - 2019-10-31 | Research area: Other
Aesthetics and Ecologies of the Evolving Anthropocene

It is no exaggeration to say that global warming – and a number of concomitant changes in biodiversity, nutrient cycling, and landscape – are emerging crisis rivalling any other in human history in both scale and scope. Indeed, the fact that the implications of these shifts (1) extend far beyond only humans (and to the totality of the planetary biosphere), and (2) exceed the ken of human history (and into the deep time of geological timescales) is why the International Commission on Stratigraphy is now poised to recognize a new geological period called “the Anthropocene.” 

While post-modern theory has claimed a “crisis of representation” in epistemology and politics, the Anthropocene condition (and the complex systems of entanglement and feedback that define it) present a new representational challenge: How to sense and “make sense” of the immanent and pervasive nature of planetary change that is, at the same time, somehow elusive – that we might understand intellectually, but not viscerally. What about the systems that we are a part of – the niches that we’ve constructed – obfuscates the ecologies at work and the trajectories through which they are evolving?  At its most foundational, these are question of evolutionary aesthetics, of perceptibility’s dynamics and limits of possibilities to change the world in appropriate directions. 

Trained as an evolutionary ecologist and having studied developmental systems of social insects and other “superorganisms,” 1,2,3,4  over the past ten years I have expanded my work to the topics of transdisciplinary research in evolutionary ecology and sustainability research in the Anthropocene context, especially through the lens of system aesthetics. 5,6 In addition to my own writing on these subjects,7,8,9,10 I have also worked in collaboration with both the HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) and the Max Planck for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin over the past five years.

My interest in developing this line of research at KLI specifically is the opportunity to  explore the concept (and application) of system aesthetics as eco-cognitive system in a fuller sense, extending beyond more traditional humanistic framings. While the transdisciplinary work of researchers like C.H. Waddington provide a precedent for the application of evolutionary and developmental perspectives on both aesthetics and macro-ecology, relatively little contemporary work is being done in this conceptual vein, resulting in both a gap and opportunity for renewed engagement.11



1 – Yang, A.S. and E. Abouheif. 2011. Gynandromorphs as indicators of modularity and evolvability in ants. J. Experimental Zoology B.  314-18.

2 – Yang, A.S. 2007. Thinking outside the embryo: The superorganism as a model for EvoDevo studies. Biological Theory 2(4): 399-408.

3 –  Yang, A.S. 2006. Seasonality, division of labor, & dynamics of colony-level nutrient storage in P. morrisi. Insectes Sociaux 53(4): 456-62. 

4 – Yang, A.S. 2004. (w/ C. Martin, H.F. Nijhout). Geographic variation in caste structure among ant populations. Current Biology 14(6): 514-19. 

5 – Burnham, Jack. “System Esthetics.” Artforum, 7.1 (1968): 30-35.

6 – Yang, A.S. 2015. Second laws, two cultures, & the emergence of an ecosystem aesthetics. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 40(2): 168-81.

7 – Yang, A.S. 2020. In Search of a Meso-Aesthetics, in The Routledge Handbook of Art, Science & Technology Studies. (forthcoming)

8 – Yang, A.S. 2019. The Aesthetics of Hidden Ecologies, in KIAS Special Publication on Sustainable Research (forthcoming)

9 – Yang, A.S. 2017. Naturalcultural wonders to Anthropocene disasters: A bibliography for possibility aesthetics. Art Journal, Winter, 2017.

10 – Yang, A.S. 2016. Making art, being nature, and the distributed agency of the creaturely created. Organisms: From the Art Nouveau of  Emile Gallé to the biocentrism of Pierre Huyghe, GAM Turin.

11 – Yang, A.S. 2018. Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawings as Metaphor, by Susan Merrill Squier. J. History of Biology. 51(4):875-877.